April 2000 Musings:
The Great River Road
The Great River Road runs high in Balltown. To the east the land drops sharply revealing a vast scape of neat Iowa farms, with their rolling dormant fields. Beyond the farms lies my first daylight glimpse of the Great River herself.
My usual touring schedule demands the Interstate mode of travel, high speeds and semis. The beauty of the countryside is disrupted by ubiquitous signs of what we call "civilization": billboards, motels, fast food restaurants, tourist shops and truck stops. This week has afforded me two days to go 400 miles. I have left behind the fast pace of the interstate, foregone the direct route, and headed due west from Rockford on Route 20. I pass through small towns, the road growing hillier and windier the closer I come to the river valley. A few miles east of Galena I catch sight of a fiery ball, nearly hidden by hilltops and dense trees, descending on the western horizon. Well after dark I cross the great Mississippi, amidst the bright lights and casinos of Dubuque.
Now under bright sun I follow the Great River Road north toward the southeastern corner of Minnesota, where I will be playing the rest of the week. I follow signs into the historic district of Guttenberg, pull over by the side of the road, and sit on a park bench, absorbing the sun's warmth, and listening to birdsong, the rush of the river through the dam just to the north, and the lapping of the water on the shore by my feet. The breeze, winter's departing voice, is chilly on my left side, my right is baked by the sun.
Winter is reluctant to release its hold out here in these hills above the river. Spring is tentative in coming, the trees are beginning to bud, but it is only the grasses, huddled close to the earth, that show signs of greening up. Only later will leaves appear, first on the lower bushes, and finally on the trees, the last holdouts to winter.
I follow a Wisconsin-plated hearse into MacGregor, past St. Mary's stone church, where it pulls into a funeral home driveway. I roll on through the town to where the view opens up onto the river, and I see ahead the blue arch of the bridge to Prairie du Chien. I cross the river, west channel, east channel, over calm waters and the many tree-covered islands. I have been here before, many years ago in a similar mid-tour quiet spell. I found lodging in Prairie du Chien and crossed the river, east to west, to explore the effigy mounds north of Marquette. I was awed by the mounds, big bear, little bear, rabbit, and by the bluffs that rise high over the Mississippi River. Last April, I returned and found the area, to my dismay, dense with people. I found silence and another small mound on a side trail, where I startled an eagle, who, apparently objecting to my presence as I had objected to the presence of the others, spun from his treetop perch and sought shelter deeper in the woods.
This morning I zigzag north along the river, always staying as close as possible to the banks. I drive north from Prairie du Chien on the east side, again and again seeking ways to approach the river's edge. I stop at a boat ramp where a great blue heron wading a few feet away seems oblivious to my presence, its gaze intent upon the ripples downstream. Some men are putting a small motorboat into the water. My solitude is not deep enough. I want a canoe to paddle to the quiet sandy beaches of the islands to satisfy my yearning for connection to this river.
I get back in my car and continue north. Crossing once again west toward Lansing, I feel a pull: this is the heart of the river. I turn into a deserted boat access, leave my car behind, and follow river's edge away from the highway. I seek the furthest point of this island. Flood signs are plentiful, grasses matted, soil rich and dark, but the earth is dry now. I pass great shaggy-barked trees I do not recognize, strands of ivy climbing their trunks. I come into an open meadow, where a channel of river separates two islands. I cannot escape the noise of the highway, but its sound is less here, and it fades into the background as the immediate silence of the meadow envelopes me. I sit on a grassy bank and drink in the colors, the sounds, the smells. There is a faint hint of skunk in the air, but perhaps it is just the musky smell of river mud. The grasses in the warmth of sun give off a fresh, lighter scent. The green-gold of the grasses on the opposite shore are reflected in the still water as it drifts lazily along the far bank. The trill and chirp of songbirds teases my ears; a woodpecker drills on a distant tree. The breeze rustles the grasses but the buds burst soundlessly on the tree next to me, and the water, the greatest presence here, moves in utter silence.
I sit long enough to see a great egret float across the meadow and the river channel next to me and disappear beyond the trees of the adjacent island. Long enough to become conscious of the earth beneath me holding me up. I lie back and listen to the meadow grasses crinkle in my ears as they settle under the weight of my head. The rustling subsides. My mind wanders into dream state. I lie cradled by the earth, nestled into this island meadow, embraced by the waters of the Mississippi River.
This is the intimacy for which I yearned. I feel satisfied, my day's quest accomplished. Even so, I am reluctant to abandon this sanctuary. But I have miles to go before I sleep, and an early day tomorrow. I pull myself from the earth, crouch by the waters. Dip finger and draw upon my cheek a path of remembrance of these hours of communion. I stand and walk away, leaving sneaker print beside split hoof track of deer, both of which will be washed into oblivion with the next rise of the river.